Focusing On Quality

In the aftermath of World War II, Japanese manufacturers became well known for the inferior quality of their products. To most Americans, the mark “made in Japan” meant the product was junk. But in the 1970s, the quality of many Japanese products surged ahead of those from American manufacturers. Ever since, American consumers have coveted Japanese cars and electronic devices.

In 1987, to improve U.S. competitiveness, Congress created a public-private partnership known as the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Program. The program’s goals were to establish criteria for evaluating quality improvement efforts; identify role model businesses; and share best practices. The Baldrige Award – presented annually by the president – quickly became the most prestigious recognition that a U.S. business could attain.

During the nearly 20 years since the program’s founding, the award criteria have evolved from a relatively loose collection of seven quality-focused categories to a fully integrated performance management system. The emphasis shifted from quality assurance to organization-wide performance.

The award and its criteria have also evolved to recognize the highly integrative nature of our economy. Competitiveness in the global marketplace requires performance excellence in all sectors of the economy, not just business. Today’s award categories include business, education, health care and nonprofits such as government agencies, credit unions and charities.

The Baldrige Award Program has spawned more then 40 state efforts, including the Georgia Oglethorpe Award. Roughly 70 percent of all Baldrige recipients first win their state’s top honor. There also exist some 60 international programs based on the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, including one in Japan in 1996.

The Georgia Oglethorpe Award program offers educational services, performance assessment services, and a self-assessment process, all designed to improve organizational performance and strengthen Georgia’s economy.

There are now three levels of recognition in the Georgia Oglethorpe program: Georgia Focus Recognition, Georgia Progress Award and the Georgia Oglethorpe Award, Georgia’s highest level of recognition, supported by all Georgia’s governors since its introduction in 1997.

Gov. Sonny Perdue recently announced the 2006 Georgia Oglethorpe Award recipient: Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority (GEFA), a state agency that administers a variety of programs and services to assist local governments, state agencies and nonprofits, in the areas of water and wastewater, solid waste, energy efficiency, recycling and fuel storage tank removal.

The agency uses the Baldrige Criteria for both self- and third-party assessment and has submitted a self-assessment package to Georgia Oglethorpe in six of the past eight years. Each year it has used the feedback from Georgia Oglethorpe to improve its performance.

Paul Burks, GEFA’s executive director and an advocate of the Georgia Oglethorpe process, says, “Using the criteria over the past eight years has totally changed the way we view and operate our organization. We have developed a systematic approach to improvement, making sure we focus on customer service, and evaluate our success based on results … . So often leaders and managers … say there is no time to stop and use the criteria. What they don’t realize is that very quickly the criteria become your operating system. Whatever issues you have, good or bad, become rolled into your processes and are resolved.”

Four organizations were named recipients of the 2006 Georgia Progress Award: Augusta VA Medical Center (Augusta); Carl Vinson VA Medical Center (Dublin); Georgia Army National Guard and Satilla Marsh Elementary School (Brunswick). Four others received 2006 Georgia Focus Recognition: Amerifleet Transportation, Inc. (Alpharetta); Quality & Technical Services Department, North America Division, The Coca-Cola Company (Atlanta); Georgia Department of Community Affairs and Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

P. George Benson is dean of the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia. He holds the Simon S. Selig, Jr. Chair for Economic Growth and can be contacted at

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features